The Alexandria Library asked me to talk about how this story in The Atlantic, about my great-grandfather’s suicide, came about. I gave a small workshop on writing family stories — you can see a few attendees in the picture.
These were the tips I gave out:
1. Find a mystery. Listen to your intuition. The verbal stories that people tell are very often the ones that hold the most meaning, but what is the meaning? If there is a story told every year about the Thanksgiving turkey that burned, is it told because someone was a bad cook, or someone lost their temper that day, or there wasn’t enough food the year before? You need mystery that interests you, otherwise you won’t have the wherewithal to follow through on the research.
2. Look for inconsistencies. It’s the differences between what people say that give you the space for questions. Why did your grandmother see that house in Indiana as dark and foreboding, while your grandfather remembers it fondly? Why does your father call the local minister a scoundrel while your mother gets a look in her eye when she mentions him?
3. Recognize the style in which you want to write. It will determine the kind of research you need. In fiction, you need to be comfortable making things up out of whole cloth and diverging from the story when you want to. Ultimate freedom, ultimate responsibility. In nonfiction, you need to have the research skills and enjoy that kind of work — thumbing through old newspapers and documenting sources.
3. Get comfortable asking people questions and observing other people. Hardly anybody has a story that is important or interesting enough to come out of their own head, unadulterated. What makes any story interesting are the tensions and dynamics between you and others, living or dead, or between the people you are watching, thinking or writing about. Questions help bring out those differences.
4. Think through the ethics. Who will be hurt? Who will be happy? Are you prepared to be revealing yourself? Are you prepared for what you will find?
5. Make space for yourself. Our most limited commodity is time. Most working writers work in every corner of time available to them. We end up at our computers or notebooks when other people are out enjoying the sunshine. But there is really no substitute for writing, redrafting, editing and polishing. You have to do them all.